Tour de France

Invulnerable Froome back in the driver’s seat

Chris From and Sky pack four riders in top 10 on Tour de France opening time trial in Dusseldorf, Germany to look anything but 'vulnerable'.

DUSSELDORF, Germany (VN) — “We look vulnerable, don’t you think?” said Dave Brailsford, Sky’s general manager, moments after his team’s first lieutenant took the yellow jersey and team Sky packed four riders into the top 10. “That’s what everybody’s been saying,” he added.

‘Everyone,’ whoever that is, has been wrong. After just one stage of the Tour de France, only 14 kilometers long, Team Sky is already in the driver’s seat.

The British outfit packed the top of the results sheet, took the yellow jersey with Geraint Thomas, and notched team leader Chris Froome into sixth overall. Froome was the fastest of the GC favorites.

A lackluster early season and long winless streak for Froome posed a big question: Would Sky would be a forceful this Tour as it was in the past? On Saturday, Sky answered, and emphatically so.

A determined Froome now leads the virtual GC by a healthy margin. He finished more than 30 seconds ahead of a clump of rivals, all of whom finished within a handful of seconds of each other. Cut non-GC riders out of the current overall standings and Froome is winning this Tour by 35 seconds after just 14 kilometers.

Froome took 35 seconds out of Richie Porte, 36 out of Nairo Quintana, 38 out of Thibaut Pinot, 39 out of Romain Bardet, 40 out of Fabio Aru, and 42 out of Jakob Fuglsang and Alberto Contador. Froome’s closest rivals are Simon Yates, 24 seconds back, and Robert Gesink, back 19.

The weather certainly played a role. Light morning rain turned heavy as the riders began to set off mid-afternoon, and by the time the favorites hit the road dry pavement was a distant memory. Heavy crashes from Porte’s teammate Nicholas Roche and then Quintana’s teammate Alejandro Valverde led both teams to pull back on the reigns.

“Looking at what happened with Alejandro, we decided to take our foot off the gas a little bit, and finish the race the best way possible, and limit our losses,” Quintana said.

Porte, too, was willing to lose a few seconds if it meant staying upright. He was in the follow car behind Roche and watched the slick pavement upend his teammate.

“I was a little bit nervous, especially after watching your teammate crash,” Porte said. “It kind of rattled me a little bit but at the end of the day I took no risks out there and I think that was the way to rid it today.”

Everyone rode in roughly the same conditions, though. The weather can only take so much blame.

Sky was simply better on Saturday. Within the context of previous Tours de France, this is no surprise. But Sky’s results earlier this season suggested it was slightly off its game. Froome wasn’t 100 percent at the Criterium du Dauphine; Giro plans fell apart when Thomas was forced to withdraw following a crash. Sergio Henao won Paris-Nice, but that was the sole stage race highlight for a team that dominated the one-week springtime races in the past.

Sky and British Cycling are particularly adept at pulling themselves together at the right moment. Britain’s track program is notorious for doing exactly the same thing at Olympic games. Three relatively quiet years were followed by utterly dominant Olympic displays at both London and Rio.

On Saturday, Froome’s team proved it’s back, and ready for the upcoming fight. Thomas’ yellow jersey was just one of four Sky kits to break into the top 10. Vasil Kyrienka (third, seven seconds back) and Michal Kwiatkowski (8th, 15 seconds back) proved that Sky is, once again, one of the strongest teams in the race. And that’s a conservative estimation.

The time gains and yellow jersey are a “big boost to morale,” Thomas said, but it’s a long three weeks. Perhaps even more important than the half-minute gain is that Sky and Froome head into the first week unharmed and intact. The same can’t be said for Quintana and Movistar, who lost Valverde in a high-speed crash on Dusseldorf’s wet roads. A broken kneecap is the diagnosis, and Valverde is out of the Tour. The Spaniard was tipped as an outside favorite for the Tour overall and would have at minimum been a valuable domestique for Quintana. His absence will be felt.

“It’s very sad for the team, and it’s a real shame for the race,” Quintana said. “Alejandro brings a lot of tranquility to the team, and he could have done something big in this Tour. Everything changes now. We have to adapt our strategy after losing someone as important as Alejandro. He was one of the most important pieces that we had on the team.”

Roche, a key lieutenant for Porte, hit the deck as well. He appears to be unhurt.

Froome’s gaps are not Tour-ending. Nor are they insignificant. With only three mountaintop finishes ahead, an even longer time trial on sitting ominously on the horizon, and team Sky clearly back on its dominant form, Froome is back in the driver’s seat.